Cratfield performers in Bernstein Prom

gallery-john_wilson_large3It’s well known that John Wilson can call on superb instrumentalists for his orchestra.  No surprise then that Ruth Rogers (Aquinas Piano Trio) and Ciaran McCabe (Cavaleri String Quartet) were sitting next to each other in the violin section in the Bernstein Prom from the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 5 September 2015.

Beyond Ciaran was Hannah Dawson (Sacconi Quartet) and in the front row was Magnus Johnston (Navarra String Quartet).  Also spotted among the cellists were Rowena Calvert (formerly of the Cavaleri String Quartet) and two members of the Britten Sinfonia.

The concert can still be downloaded or viewed on the BBC iPlayer.  The John Wilson Orchestra returns to Snape Maltings on Friday 18 December 2015: details from Aldeburgh Music.

Concert review: Professor Roger Parker and the Badke Quartet

Blyth Valley Chamber Music, the charity which presents Concerts at Cratfield, has as its object ‘ … to promote, improve, develop and maintain public education in and appreciation of the art and science of chamber music in all its aspects by the presentation of professional public concerts and by such other ways as the Society through its Committee of Trustees shall determine from time to time.’  Educational events have occurred at 11 year intervals recently: perhaps they should be a little more frequent.

This, the fifth concert of the 2015 season, was in the form of an introductory talk by Roger Parker followed by a performance of each piece played by the Badke Quartet: Haydn’s op 77 no 2 before the interval and Beethoven’s op 18 no 4 afterwards.  A recording of each of the talks will shortly be posted on the Concerts at Cratfield website.  Part of the text of a Gresham College lecture Professor Parker gave in 2007 was printed in the programme and is already on the website (click here): it is a lucid introduction to the practical difficulties faced by the players and the rise of the popularity of the string quartet and is well worth reading.

Roger Parker has considerable experience of talking about music, string quartets in particular.  The length of his introductions, 15 – 20 minutes, was carefully judged while providing an informative and interesting guide to each of the works.  It was fascinating to learn about, and then hear, two quartets written within 12 months of one another at the turn of the eighteenth century. Haydn’s was the last complete quartet he wrote, and Beethoven’s among the first. Both were commissioned by the Bohemian Prince Lobkowitz.

Haydn op 77 no 2

Prince Lobkowitz had commissioned a set of six string quartets of which only two were completed: Haydn struggled with no 3 and never finished it. He was losing his powers during the final nine years of his life and Roger Parker suggested that, composing as he did, he needed to hold the whole piece in his head and was no longer able to do so.  However, with op 77 no 2, Haydn’s range of musical invention was unabated and shows the ingenuity of expression he had developed over a period of nearly 40 years composing string quartets.

Beethoven op 18 no 4

Before 1794 when Haydn left for one of his visits to England, Beethoven was briefly his pupil to learn counterpoint. The tuition was not welcomed by Beethoven who parted with his teacher on bitter terms.  There is however clear evidence in this quartet of Beethoven’s study of Haydn’s quartets; and it is known that he copied out a couple of Mozart’s quartets as a means of studying them.  Roger Parker pointed out that Beethoven may have used percussive chords in this quartet in an iconoclastic way which Mozart and Haydn would have found disconcerting, but they were a surface device and, far from being forward-looking, the form of the quartet, and its place in a group of six, make it clear that it was harking back to the eighteenth century.  Beethoven may have had wild hair, but at this stage in his career he was still fundamentally conventional.

I found it enormously helpful to have my mind focused on a piece of music by such an introduction and then to hear it played. The Badke Quartet, with guest cello player Philip Higham, gave fine performances of each piece as we have come to expect of these old friends of Cratfield, even if the articulation of Charlotte Scott, the first violin, was not always clear.  Listening to music as I grow older, I value increasingly the commitment of musicians, the venue in which the performance takes place and being part of an informed audience.  I am grateful that those desiderata are fulfilled so often and so abundantly at Concerts at Cratfield.  And now I know that my enjoyment can be further enhanced by such inspiring introductions, which also serve to provide space round the music.

Jeremy Greenwood

Our 2015 AGM

If you are a Patron or Member of Blyth Valley Chamber Music, you’ll hear by post in November about the details of this year’s Annual General Meeting, which we hope you will be free to attend.  It will take place at Cratfield Village Hall on Sunday 13 December 2015 at 12 noon and will include an audio preview of the 2016 season, as well as the usual buffet lunch after the formal business.

If any of your contact details have changed recently, please make sure that we have these recorded correctly: contact Pauline at the Box Office by phone (01728 603 077) or e-mail (boxoffice@concertsatcratfield.org.uk).

2016 season: outline provisional programme

3 July 2016: Carducci String Quartet with Nicholas Daniel oboe and cor anglais: Mozart, Shostakovich, David Matthews, Beethoven

17 July 2016: Heath Quartet: Mozart, Bartók, Tchaikovsky

31 July 2016: London Haydn Quartet: Haydn, Beethoven

14 August 2016: André Trio piano trio: Mendelssohn, Fauré, Beethoven

28 August 2016: Charles Owen piano: Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Ravel

11 September 2016: Callino Quartet with Anna Dennis soprano and Alasdair Beatson piano: Webern, Schoenberg, Brahms

All concerts are at St Mary’s Cratfield on Sundays at 3pm

New individual pages for these concerts will be added to this website during Autumn 2015, including advance booking information.

Roger Parker on the string quartet

Here is an extract from a Gresham College lecture by Professor Roger Parker from 2007:

Although Haydn’s works are close to the start of the genre, so much so that he is sometimes even called its ‘father’, composers today are still writing them, often regarding them as compositions of great seriousness. Why has this particular combination of instruments lasted for so long? It’s not, after all, a particularly balanced group. Two violins, one viola (which is tuned a fifth lower), and one cello (which is an octave below that). We hear all sorts of quasi- mystical stuff about the famed ‘balance’ and ‘equality’ of the group, but in fact the differences between the instruments make the ensemble in some ways extremely problematic. A viola is bigger than a violin, which makes it louder, but also harder to play in tune, particularly when the playing is fast. And the cello is so much larger still that the distances the left hand has to traverse necessitate a radically different fingering system. All this means that music played on one instrument will not always transfer easily to another. To take only the most obvious example: a rapid melody that may be a walk in the park for the violins can become a steep mountain path for the viola; for the cello, an oxygen mask and advanced climbing gear may be needed.

This imbalance in the ensemble derives from its origins, which were in early eighteenth-century orchestral groups. The two violins there tended to function in what’s called a ‘trio-sonata’ texture, weaving in and out of each other’s line, frequently overlapping; and the viola and cello tended to supply little more than the functional bass part. No equality here (apart from in the two upper instruments). But if the string quartet started life as a kind ofminimal orchestra, for performances in smaller venues, many of them domestic, it soon took on a life of its own, becoming the most common chamber music ensemble of the later eighteenth century, first in Germany and Austria, then spreading, with the spread of its repertoire, to other European countries.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the string quartet’s prestige had become considerable, in large part because two of the most famous composers of the period, first Haydn and then Mozart, had dedicated some of their most complex music to the genre. Beethoven simply added to this prestige, and after him there was no looking back. Although the comparatively restricted and uniform sound of four solo strings might have seemed thin indeed for musicians of the nineteenth century, let alone for those of the twentieth, composers kept measuring themselves against the accumulation of masterpieces of the past. And so the string quartet has become a major repository for a certain kind of classical music; we might even say that it represents a particular attitude to what is central to our musical past. This is important, and not to be underestimated. The ‘rise’ of the string quartet more-or-less came with the rise of Austro-German instrumental music generally, and its prestige was locked into the idea that that particular tradition was central to our musical universe: was the one against which all others should be measured. This is why all those composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – by no means all of them Austro-German – wanted to write string quartets, even at a time when many other combinations would have seemed more suited to the times. They wanted to measure themselves against the centre.

Concert review: Aquinas Piano Trio + Sarah-Jane Bradley

This fourth concert in the Concerts at Cratfield 2015 season featured three works, all piano quartets and all new to Cratfield.

The first was Mozart’s Piano quartet in E flat (K493), the second of the composer’s piano quartets.  Mozart had invented the form, in which a viola is added to a piano trio (or a piano to a string trio, depending how you look at it), but abandoned the genre when his first piano quartet (in G minor K478) received a lukewarm reception in 1785 for being too difficult for domestic performance in the salon.  In contrast, at Cratfield in 2015, performed by the accomplished Aquinas Piano Trio with the first rate viola player, Sarah-Jane Bradley, the work was warmly received, and deservedly so.  The first movement, brimming with a variety of lyrical themes and tempi more typical of a Mozart piano concerto, was delivered with assured balance and playfulness, the quick witted, close-coupled dialogue between the strings set against a cascade of arpeggios and rapid scale notes on the piano.  The larghetto delivered simpler, achingly beautiful and intense lyrical interludes, in A flat.  Rounded off by a pacey finale, the overall performance was nimble, engaging and satisfying.

The second work of the afternoon was a relatively short piano quartet, again in three movements, by the prominent American composer and academic, Walter Piston (1894-1976).  The first movement barely paused for breath, and built to an exciting, sometimes nightmarish, climax, albeit sensitively rendered by the performers, and with excellent balance.  In parts of the first movement, but most particularly in the closing bars of the finale, the performers perfectly caught the composer’s sense of humour, so ultimately meeting with a warm reception from what might otherwise have been a wary audience.

The triumph of the afternoon, however, was Brahms’ Piano quartet no 3 in C minor.   Composed over 20 years (but firmly parked in a drawer, unfinished, for much of that time), the piano quartet was the first of three to be begun, in 1854, but the last to be completed.  This meant that Brahms himself had reservations about the coherence of the work (‘half old, half new – the whole thing isn’t worth much!’, he said), parts of which he substantially rewrote, even altering the tonality by a semitone from C sharp minor.   The first movement remains unabashedly romantic, the work of a tortured 20 year old; whilst the Finale is the assured work of a mature composer.  Notwithstanding the chronology of its composition, and the composer’s own reservations, the outcome was, in the hands of the Aquinas and Sarah-Jane Bradley, a cohesive rendering.  The musicians’ collective heart was firmly in this work, and their fluent, spirited and engaging performance won over the Cratfield audience.

Rachel Booth

Linos Piano Trio wins Melbourne prizes

collage_lb_image_page11_1_1The Linos Piano Trio – Konrad Elias-Trostmann violin, Vladimir Waltham cello and Prach Boondiskulchok piano – who played at Cratfield in July 2014, have won the Piano Trio section and the Peter Druce Audience Award at the 2015 Melbourne International Chamber Music competition.

Congratulations!

Concert review: Navarra String Quartet

On Sunday 2 August at St Mary’s Cratfield, the Navarra String Quartet gave us a technically brilliant and sensitive performance of three very different quartets across the twentieth century. Demonstrating the best of ensemble playing, they revelled in the challenging, tight rhythmic sections in all three pieces, while responding to the voice of each composer and to each musician’s solo moments.

 ‘I have always dreamed that my music would be heard in the places where unhappy people are gathered,’ wrote Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks and this encapsulates the raw emotion and thoughtful mood of his String Quartet no 3 (1995). The tentative pizzicato of the Moderato led to the full-bodied, reflective playing of the cello and established the strong communication between the four players that lies at the core of their musicianship. The contrasting Allegro energico provided the opportunity for the group to display their thrilling technical expertise. The triumphant yet pensive movement led us to the climax with a single note left hanging in the silence. In the Adagio the lamenting waves of the music plumbed the depths of loss. The balance the group achieved shone through in the controlled and restrained crescendo expressing exquisite pain. The delicate birdsong of the final movement and the contrasting sections of peaceful and uplifting calm, against the dramatic, frantic bowing gave hope and energy to the world of sadness created by Vasks. This evocative piece gave voice to the experience of deep sorrow and contrasted effectively with Britten’s more personal expression of emotion as he neared the end of his life.

Peter Pears said of the Britten’s third and final string quartet, written in 1975, ‘of a preferred beauty more touching than anything else, radiant, wise, new, mysterious’. The interplay between the four instruments created an immediate intensity in the opening of this five-movement quartet. The viola and cello provided a strong, melodic ground on which the violins could display their frolicking dance. This pairing was repeated in the stronger, fast moving Ostinato which led to the plaintive and soaring violin solo, where amazing technical skill created a sound extruded from the instrument in a radiant purity. The vibrant, lively Burlesque brought us down to earth before we moved into the final movement with the mournful voice of the cello leading to solos for each instrument. An insistent heartbeat rhythm drew us inexorably to the end; a triumphant climax of the bells, then silence. The mystery of this piece was captured perfectly in the quartet’s mature ensemble playing.

Moving back in time to the start of the twentieth century, we found ourselves on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle of a French impressionist painting as we listened to Ravel’s String Quartet in F (1902-3). It was dedicated to Fauré, who described the last movement as ‘stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure’, while Debussy wrote to Ravel: ‘… in the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet’. This creative tension is evident in the piece. The young composer wished to write this quartet in the classical tradition but the finished piece reflects the exciting and innovative period in which Ravel lived.  The quartet basked in the romantic melody of the opening motif, which was repeated in the third and fourth movements. They moved effortlessly from the pizzicato, spirited and effervescent sections to the more lyrical, expressive passages. The opportunity this piece gives for elegant, pensive playing was fully exploited and explored, particularly by the viola. The final section, Vif et agité, with its transition from delicate to frantic, dramatic passages then to the powerfully lyrical, presented a demanding technical challenge which the quartet attacked with relish.

The Navarra Quartet combines technical brilliance with a fine musical sensitivity to the voice of the composer and his music. A fantastic way to spend a Sunday afternoon!

Lin Le Versha

3 August 2015

Lee Harwood 1939-2015

leeportsmallWe regret to announce the death on 26 July 2015 of British poet Lee Harwood, whose texts were arranged and set by Elena Langer in her Cratfield commission, the song-cycle Landscape with Three People (2013).

He was present with his family at the first performance at St Mary’s, and was eager to hear the recording made at Snape on 2014, to be issued by Harmonia Mundi USA in 2016.

For his obituary in The Guardian, click here.  For his entry in Wikipedia, click here.

 

 

New CD from Pramsohler and Grisvard

204f6d_9503a7acac6b4c0da0731ad530be44d3.jpg_srb_p_240_240_75_22_0.50_1.20_0Cratfield concertgoers who attended either of the early music concerts by the Paris-based Ensemble Diderot (in 2011 and 2014) may be interested in the new CD which Johannes Pramsohler’s own label Audax Records has just released: Bach & Entourage.

The innovative programme includes violin sonatas which may be by Bach, are treated as Bach but may be by Pisendel, are definitely by Pisendel (a daringly virtuoso solo sonata, which Johannes played for us in 2014) and by less well known composers of the generation after Bach: Johann Ludwig Krebs and Johann Gottlieb Graun (both world première recordings).

Johannes is the violinist on the CD, with Philippe Grisvard harpsichord; it can be ordered direct from the Audax Records website (click here) or from the usual retail sources in the UK.

In our experience, two companies offer a good range of stock, keen prices and efficient service for buying classical CDs online in the UK: www.mdt.co.uk and www.prestoclassical.co.uk. The fastest delivery to Suffolk may come from Prelude Records in Norwich, www.preluderecords.co.uk, who are equally helpful on the phone: 01603 620 170.